This week, as a storm rolled in over the Mediterranean, almost 500 exhausted people sat aboard rescue vessels for which there is no unconditional safe harbour. One hundred and three of those stranded are children, many of them unaccompanied.
Unwittingly, these migrants and refugees have found themselves caught in the middle of both a storm and a standoff.
Until last Friday, Open Arms and Ocean Viking (operated by SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders) were carrying 147 and around 350 passengers, respectively. Were Open Arms to land on Lampedusa, an early August decree from far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini banning rescue boats’ entry into Italian waters would dictate that their boat be seized, the captain charged and the organisation slapped with a debilitating fine.
However, Open Arms appealed to an administrative court which on Wednesday suspended the decree. Salvini then signed another decree blocking the ship but, on Thursday, Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta, a member of the 5-Star Movement, blocked this decree.
On Thursday, six EU countries: France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg said they were ready to take in some of the 147 migrants stranded on the rescue ship near Lampedusa. Until Friday, the boats had not yet been allowed to dock, nor passengers to disembark.
Italy’s newly-formalised hostility to rescue organisations is just the latest concerning the wrong-headed move, in a situation where there are no easy answers. It’s the most extreme measure taken by any Mediterranean-adjacent nation so far and reflects a deeply worrying trend.
This cruel policy could spell the end for rescue in Italian waters, or the end for the organisations that carry them out there. What we’re seeing is the criminalisation of rescue at sea, and it’s ugly, inhumane, and ultimately unsustainable.
When my wife Regina and I started MOAS in 2013, it was for one simple reason: to save lives.
From the beginning, we sought out cooperation with governments – and we got it. In 2014, we worked with militaries, and the UK, Irish, Italian and Greek navies. We had the Greek coastguard aboard our ships. Our policy was pro-government and pro-engagement. We would bring them on board to teach and to collaborate.
Then, eventually, came the point when governments said: “We can’t cooperate anymore.”
European member states have all but withdrawn search and rescue, outsourcing the problem and much of the associated political baggage to search and rescue NGOs.
I don’t see the EU tackling the Mediterranean route issue with any real sense of urgency or unity – and these are two forces that are sorely needed right now
While the flow of migrants and refugees has declined from its terrifying peak in 2015, over the last six years of operation we helped save 40,000 lives at sea and assisted hundreds of thousands on land.
We weathered our share of criticism over the years. A common allegation was that our mere presence as a search and rescue outfit was a keystone of the people-smuggler business model.
I was not and am not under any illusions: of course the prospect of possible or likely rescue makes sea passage an easier sell for smugglers and traffickers.
But similarly, the absence of search and rescue does not stem the flow of people out of Libya, it doesn’t stop people dying at sea and it doesn’t stop people from reaching foreign shores.
When we ceased rescue operations on the Mediterranean in 2017, it was for a range of reasons. We continue to engage in robust humanitarian work in the Middle East and Asia while our Xchange Research team has done invaluable data-driven research. We even did a humanitarian evacuation flight out of Libya to Niamey in cooperation with the UNHCR.
While we at MOAS reflect and recalibrate our work, it’s crucial that search and rescue continues, and is allowed to continue, in the Mediterranean.
Around the world, divisive rhetoric is on the rise. As countries turn inward, people are numbed to the human tragedy that continues to unfold on Europe’s doorstep.
For anyone who’s spent time aboard rescue vessels, the indifference and outright hostility is hard to fathom.
As a pernicious brand of populism becomes more commonplace, and anti-immigration sentiment remains a selling point for hardliners, our humanity is being set aside.
There is a real need to hew to higher ideals enshrined in international laws and conventions, which aren’t subject to the whims of craven and polarised domestic party politics. The strength to tackle this must come from a unity of purpose.
Route causes must be addressed, but in the absence of a silver bullet for push factors, a humanitarian approach must prevail.
I don’t see the EU tackling the Mediterranean route issue with any real sense of urgency or unity – and these are two forces that are sorely needed right now.
Last year, the UNHCR and International Organisation for Migration tabled a proposal for a regional disembarkation mechanism, which would call for establishing safe ports all around the Mediterranean.
It would involve asylum and reception centres. Refugees would then be resettled or, in the case of migrants, returned, with an emphasis on safety and dignity.
There has been little movement on this eminently sensible suggestion. Europe continues to kick the can down the road, and as long as it does, people will continue to die nameless deaths at sea.
Christopher Catrambone is the co-founder of MOAS, an international humanitarian organisation based in Malta dedicated to providing aid and emergency medical relief to refugees and migrants around the world.